LTTN med xp logoThe Fast of Tammuz

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1995 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, July, 1995 (Tammuz/Av, 5755)


On the fast of Tammuz, we begin a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple (see “The Sin of the Spies” on page 10). The Rabbis teach that the initial stage of a calamity is the most difficult part. When it comes to these three weeks, many of the great rabbis teach us that even though one might think that the coming month of Av is more severe than Tammuz, since it was during Av that the Holy Temple was destroyed, in reality the month of Tammuz is a more severe time, strictly a time of harsh judgments, whereas the month of Av begins to “soften” and become kinder in its nature from the 15th of Av and onwards. The reason for such severity in Tammuz is because of the journey of the “spies” which took place during these days (Numbers 13). Since they embarked upon their journey at the end of Sivan, and returned on the ninth of Av, only a part of those two months were “tainted” by the evil action of the spies. But the month of Tammuz was completely taken up by their mission, from beginning to end.

Recently, Jerusalem has suffered a major forest fire, which destroyed millions of trees in the Jerusalem Corridor. This fire was called the worst natural disaster in the State of Israel’s history, and the damage to the trees in the Jerusalem Forest alone - besides the damage to property - was estimated at over twenty million dollars. As this fire occurred on July 2, 1996 - the 4th of Tammuz - the hottest day on record in 100 years - the flames spread quickly, and entire communities had to be evacuated. Many homes were destroyed. July 2nd, of course, was just one day after the unmet “deadline” (which came out on Shabbat) set by the government of Israel and the PLO for reaching an interim agreement on IDF withdrawal (read: retreat) from Judea and Samaria. Later in the same week, two more serious fires occurred - one in the Strauss dairy products factory, and the other at the Dan Hotel in Eilat. The day of the Jerusalem Forest fires had an eerie feeling to it, as the entrance to the city was literally surrounded by a wall of fire. And as we ponder the implications of Tammuz and the destruction of the Holy Temple, we were reminded of the “nachem” prayer recited in the shemoneh esrai (the prayer of 18 blessings) on Tisha B’Av, the day both Holy Temples were destroyed: “For You, Hashem, destroyed her with fire, and with fire You will in the future rebuild her, as it is written: (Zech. 2:9) ‘And I will be for her, says Hashem, a wall of fire round about.’” All over the city, even at its furthermost points, the smell of fire was noticeable; the sky glowed with an orange tinge, and a layer of fine white ash fell to the ground in every neighborhood over most of that day and night.

The week in which this fire occurred, we read the Torah portion of Bilaam’s ‘curse’: “What curse can I pronounce if G-d will not grant a curse? What Divine wrath can I conjure, if G-d will not be angry?” (Numbers 23:8)

Indeed, the wicked Bilaam - whom the sages tell us was the only human being who could pinpoint the exact moment of Hashem’s wrath ( BT Berachot 7:A) - knew this secret: that men can plan and scheme for both good and evil, but the outcome of everything in this world comes only from Hashem, despite all appearances. Indeed, even in the face of the destruction of the Holy Temple, despite the incredible scope of this tragedy for the Jewish people, the rabbis point out that “Hashem poured out his wrath on wood and stones” (Midrash Eicha Rabtai 4,15) - and not on His people.

Such was the feeling this past week in Jerusalem, as we reel from the devastation of the forest fires, on the background of all which is transpiring in the negotiations between the present government of Israel and the PLO, with each side eager and zealous to quickly conclude a pact which will speed the Jewish people towards an uncertain future. But what curse can be pronounced if G-d will not grant it as a curse?

It was also food for thought that one week after the fire, on July 10, an unusual summer rain fell in several locations throughout Israel - indeed, rain is extremely unusual in Tammuz. The heaviest rains fell along the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv Highway, in the location of the fire. Had the rains arrived one week earlier, they would have extinguished the fires...

Some interpret Hashem’s future “wall of fire” as an indication that the third Holy Temple will descend in fire from Heaven. Others have a much simpler view: just as Hashem allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed in fire, so shall she be rebuilt by fire - the “fire” of artillery and military victory. “And it shall come to pass, that the house of Jacob shall be fire...” (Ovadiah 18)

In Bilaam’s words: “In due time, Yaakov and Yisrael are told what G-d has performed. This is a nation that rises like the king of beasts, and lifts itself like a lion...” (Num. 23:23-24) Why does Bilaam compare Israel to a lion getting up?

This can be likened to a parable: A class of youngsters went on a trip to the zoo. As the young boys stood around the lion’s cage, they were amazed at how docile he appeared as he rested. He even allowed them to taunt him without reacting. The boys were clearly disappointed. One child asked the teacher, “Is this the animal called the king of beasts?”

But later on, just as they were leaving the zoo, the lion got up. And although his cage was clear on the other side of the zoo, they heard his tremendous roar as it shook the entire zoo. The boys’ teacher was pleased that he could show his class the answer to their question. “You see, children. This is the secret of the Jewish people - ‘A nation that gets up like a lion.’ When she is lying down, sleepy, one thinks - ‘how could this be the lion that everyone fears?’ But when she finally gets up...all will know who she is.’”